Latest winner: Judgement Day

By Kevin Sleight

Kevin says: I live in happy retirement with my wife near the beach where I can often be found walking (slowly) or sitting on the promenade with my head buried in a book. I’m a thriller/crime junkie, preferably with a good twist in the tail.

“Has the jury reached a verdict on which you are all agreed?”

The heat in the courtroom was stifling. The air hung there as if it had suddenly solidified. The smallest movement was an effort. Suits and dresses stuck like damp sponges to the bodies of the men and women who, in the main, would rather be somewhere else.

I tried to remain calm. But I found myself asking the same question I had asked myself over and over again these past few weeks. How had I gotten into this mess in the first place? 

I’ll tell you now, because when all’s said and done, it’s pretty straightforward really. Murder usually is. No need to complicate things. This isn’t Agatha Christie, although my story comes with all the usual ingredients. A dead body. Female. A prime suspect. Me of course. A weapon. A bread knife. With my finger prints on the handle. Stupid really. But shock is hardly conducive to rational behaviour. A motive? Yes. And to cap it all a police department with too many crimes to solve and no real interest in checking beyond the obvious. Averse to looking a gift horse in the mouth they were not. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So permit me to backtrack a little.

My name is William Gibson. I’m married to Danielle who I love, have two kids – one boy, one girl – both grown and flown the proverbial nest. I make a fair pot of money helping big corporations swallow up small corporations. A more or less perfect lifestyle  you might think and you’d be right. In principle. 

Enter Jackie. 

Jackie is, or rather was, the natural consequence of an all too human weakness for a varied diet. A hooker in point of fact. Not your everyday street corner variety. A cut above. Nice, presentable, sexy naturally, intelligent even.  And affordable. She had her own convenient direct-access apartment in a renovated warehouse in what realtors like to describe as an ‘up and coming neighborhood’. 

I’d been buying what Jackie had to sell for the better part of six months. Not too often, just often enough to scratch the occasional itch. 

Truth be told, I liked her a lot. And within the confines of a strictly business ‘relationship’, I believe she liked me. So why would I kill her? 

Four months have passed since the good times came to an abrupt halt, but I can see her now, as if it were only yesterday – lying on the floor, almost naked, the knife sticking out of her chest, blood everywhere.

I turned up as arranged at eight o clock in the evening. I was supposed to be ‘networking’ with a ‘business associate’.

I should have realised immediately something was wrong when her front door was open.

I nearly fainted when I saw her. My first instincts were to run. Get the hell out of her satin and lace boudoir. I’d already half turned away from Jackie when she groaned; a low, throaty near-death cry for help. 

I did what seemed the right thing to do and knelt before her, cradling her head in my arms. Never thought to call for an ambulance. Soon found out that it would have made no difference. 

She tried to speak. Failed. Tried again. Whispered something, a single word. “Judge. . .ment.”  Then died.

I left her where I’d found her.

Out in the street, sweating, nearly hyperventilating, I caught myself saying, “I will Jackie, I will. . .”

Silly really. Who was I? Sherlock Holmes? Columbo?  What chance did I have of finding her killer? I’d be lucky if the police didn’t come knocking on my door, asking me the awkward questions I’d have asked the prime suspect if I found one. Needless to say, I wasn’t lucky. I have my fingerprints on the aforementioned murder weapon to thank for that. That, coupled with a record for possession of a controlled substance acquired when I was young and free and stupid. . .

Events conspired against me. I had a criminal record and consequently my fingerprints were on file. They were traced in the time it took a hard drive to search the relevant database, which was no time at all. 

Had I touched the knife? Clearly I had.

Had I been in the vicinity of Jackie’s flat around the time of her death? The closed circuit camera in the gas station I stopped at, less than a mile from her apartment, said I had.

And the eight-o-clock entry in her diary that said simply W further tightened the proverbial noose around my neck. 

Naturally I pleaded my innocence because I was innocent. Naturally I hired the best attorney my money could buy. Naturally I went with the flow when Danielle said she wanted a divorce. What else could I do?

And to my eternal shame, in the quagmire of my misery, I forgot about my promise to Jackie. In my defence I can only plead that the thought of ten thousand volts of electricity or a lethal injection surging through one’s body can be somewhat distracting.

“We have.”

“And do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?”

“We find the defendant…”

It must have been the third week of the trial when the penny dropped. I was sitting where I always sat, doodling absent-mindedly on the legal pad in front of me. My very expensive attorney was cross-questioning one of the arresting officers, and to my mind not doing a particularly good job of it. At least not enough to justify his hourly billing rate. 

“Oh, Jackie. I understand.”

It was the diary that gave me that light-bulb moment.

At first I couldn’t believe it. What I was thinking was preposterous. 

Then I thought about it a bit more. She was picky, I knew that. And after ‘business’ she liked to talk about her customers. No names mind. Hookers are like attorneys. Client confidentiality is everything. But having established the ground rule – no names, no pack drill – a bit of titillating hot-gossip didn’t go amiss. In particular, she talked about someone a little bit special. A new client. Someone going places. About to make a name for himself.

The six-o-clock client surely. Never identified. And given that the police had an easy bird-in-the hand why bother looking? He was there in black and white anonymity in the prosecution’s Exhibit 17, being the relevant page of Jackie’s diary, right there above me, the untraceable P above my slam-dunked W and all of a sudden 2 plus 2 made exactly 4.

At least in my somewhat fevered, desperate mind it did.

Not that such a crazy solution would do me any good. I was dead in the water and knowledge without proof is like a bagel without the cheese. Not worth having. 

Who would believe me? 

Not that it made any difference. At this stage in the trial, it was all down to the jury. 

What did they see when they looked at me? A fat cat that needed cutting down to size? A fiend who’d ruthlessly murdered a woman fallen from grace? Or a basically decent guy who was innocent and just happened to have strayed from the nest and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Roll the dice. 

“…guilty or not guilty?”

Finally it was time. After nearly a month of trail and the better part of two day’s deliberation the jury had reached its verdict.

I stood up as bidden. The foreman of the jury stood also. 

Had the members of the jury reached a verdict on which they were all agreed? 

They had. 

I closed my eyes. 

Found my mind again flashing back to Jackie’s apartment. To that fateful evening. Imagined P in her apartment for his six-o-clock appointment. Imagined something going wrong. Had she decided he was worth more than the usual hourly rate? Had greed overcome caution? Had the reality of what he was doing and how vulnerable he was suddenly hit home like a bullet to the chest? Knowing what I knew of her, I tried to picture it. I had to admit it was a stretch, but nothing else made sense. Greed is a powerful emotion. And in some of us, the veneer of respectability is wafer thin. The more I thought about it, it made sense. Either she’d chosen the wrong guy to up the ante. Or the guy decided the ante was already too high for his liking. 

 Suddenly I jerked back to the present. Told myself I would get through this. For Danielle’s sake, if not for Jackie’s. 

I listened to the foreman’s voice.

As did the man facing me. The man who the smart money said would be the next appointee to the US Supreme Court.

The man with everything to lose. 

Judge Peter Mentoni.

Six-o-clock Peter.

Judge Ment. . .oni.

“Guilty.”